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Solo female travel in Saudi Arabia: Seven myths busted

Follow Product Manager Carmel’s myth-busting guide to independent female travel in Saudi Arabia; covering everything from clothes and male guardians to socialising with the other sex.
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Last year I was lucky enough to travel with one of our first Explore groups to Saudi Arabia. We walked barefoot on sandy deserts and stood on a precipice at the edge of the world; we came up close and personal to ancient cave-paintings that have only recently become public knowledge; we immersed ourselves in the smells and sounds of the world’s largest camel market, and we were welcomed with Arabic hospitality in every corner.
 

Since my return, I’ve fielded many a question about my journey as a solo female traveller. How was I treated? What did I wear? Did I need to cover myself up in public? Times are changing quickly in Saudi Arabia, and figuring out how to travel as a solo woman seems like a minefield. To help with this, I’ve put together a myth-busting guide to the most common misconceptions about travelling in Saudi Arabia as a female. While laws for locals and tourists differ, all of these apply to travellers and many of them are now applicable to local Saudi women.

A male guardian is necessary

No! You don’t need to be accompanied by a male family member or have permission from a man to travel. Solo females can happily take Ubers, walk around cities by themselves, go to the mall or a museum, or book a hotel room. Culturally, it is still usual for Saudi women to travel with a man. However, this is not a legal requirement, and these norms are now slowly beginning to change.

Women have to cover themselves

Wearing a full abaya (the long black coat) and headscarf is not obligatory for tourists or locals. Women should dress ‘modestly’, which in cities means long sleeves and long skirts or lightweight trousers. In remote areas, I wore t-shirts with short or mid-length sleeves. The only two places where the guides asked us specifically to cover ourselves were Medina and at the camel festival in Buraydah. It’s true; for women this is a frustration that I felt keenly when my male tour-mates were wearing shorts and a t-shirt. On the other hand, I wanted to visit these places respectfully. If the thought of covering yourself up for even one day makes you uncomfortable, then Saudi Arabia isn’t for you. Yet!

Unmarried couples cannot share a room

This is another law that has changed at speed. With Mohammed Bin Salman’s dramatic shift towards tourism, he amended many prohibitive laws. This was one of them. On Explore’s Kingdom of Saudi Arabia trip, you can expect to be roomed with your travel partner, whether married, unmarried, or just good friends. If you’re a solo female, you’ll be roomed as normal with someone of the same sex.

Mingling with single men is forbidden

If this one were true then it would really put the kybosh on a group tour. Some restaurants are still segregated, with a ‘male’ section, and a ‘family’ section. In those cases, women and men eat together in the family section. Many restaurants now are mixed, and I went out on several evenings to check out Saudi’s late-night café culture, visiting shops, cafés and restaurants as a mixed group of single people.

It’s not safe to walk around solo

While there isn’t actually a lot of ‘down time’ on our tour, I did get the chance to explore solo a couple of times. On one memorable occasion I was walking down the sea front in Jeddah, on a Friday evening, when the call to prayer started. The haunting sound echoed down the corniche. While children carried on playing, and men took out their prayer mats, I soaked up the atmosphere peacefully in my western clothes. It felt like a privilege to be there, and was one of the highlights of my trip.

You’ll be subjected to unwanted attention

This one is true; as a single woman in Saudi you will experience attention. The greatest surprise is that it comes from other women. We had women approaching us for a ‘selfie’, or asking us what we thought of Saudi Arabia. Some asked where we got our abaya from, and others surreptitiously filmed us while we walked past. None of this attention was negative: it was all, without question, borne out of a friendly curiosity, and an opportunistic moment for Saudi women to talk to a westerner. I loved every moment.

Swimming is only for men

In hotels, swimming pools generally have separate male-only and female-only times. Sometimes hotel guests no longer respect these rules, particularly if the hotel has mainly overseas clients. Women can therefore swim in most hotels. On the beaches, for example when we go snorkelling near Yanbu on our Journey through Arabia tour, normal swimsuits are fine. Now that the cruise ship industry has come to Saudi, the ‘norm’ is changing rapidly, with many women donning bikinis if swimming in a secluded place like the island that we visit.

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